Middle Passage, Johnson’s third published novel, is a complex blend of allegory, adventure story, tall tale, and philosophical meditation. The novel won the National Book Award. It follows the misadventures of Rutherford Calhoun, the narrator, who is an entertaining liar and consummate rogue. Calhoun, a slave, flees first to New Orleans and then, to escape marriage, to sea. Ironically, he stows away on a slave ship, the Republic, and so his adventures begin.
The novel’s characters are a motley collection of freaks, misfits, and oddities. Ebenezer Falcon, captain of the Republic, is a stunted, twisted dwarf whose brilliant mind and strong will are devoted to his own evil ends. Cringle, the first mate, is a well-meaning but ineffectual liberal, able to perceive evils and injustices but incapable of acting to resolve them. Josiah Squibb, the alcoholic, often-married but never-divorced cook, serves as a representative both of humankind’s baser instincts and of rough but necessary common sense.
In Africa, the Republic takes on a cargo of slaves from the Allmuseri tribe (a group frequently mentioned in Johnson’s fiction as a symbol of original African nature and unity). The crew also brings on board an enormous box that contains the Allmuseri’s “god,” a monstrous shape-shifting creature that drives mad those who listen to it.
On the return voyage, a mutiny and slave revolt, perhaps...
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Winner of the National Book Award for fiction, Middle Passage is a fanciful account of the misadventures of a twenty-two-year-old black man, a freed slave who ends up aboard a ship bound for Africa to take on a cargo of slaves. Middle Passage is divided into nine entries made by Rutherford Calhoun in a ship’s log. The first entry is dated June 14, 1830, and the last is dated August 20, 1830. Calhoun narrates each entry.
The book’s action begins in New Orleans, where Rutherford Calhoun has drifted after being freed from slavery by his master, a preacher in southern Illinois. Calhoun, mischievous by nature, becomes involved in petty crime and ends up deep in debt to Papa Zeringue, a Creole gangster. Rutherford has also entered into a platonic relationship with Isadora, a young schoolteacher. Papa offers to forgive Calhoun his debts if he will marry Isadora, but for young Rutherford, any thought of marriage is too constricting even to contemplate. To escape, he stows away on a slave ship, the Republic. The ship puts to sea before he is discovered.
After he has been found, he is brought before the captain, Ebenezer Falcon, a strange but philosophical man, misshapen both in physique and in morality. Falcon turns out to be both a dwarf and a monster, but in his first interview with Calhoun, there are only intimations of this monstrosity. Falcon decides to allow Calhoun to work aboard the ship without compensation. For the rest of the voyage to Africa, Calhoun befriends the crew and learns about the ship, which is not in good condition and is constantly being repaired.
The ship drops anchor in the African port of Bangalang. There, Rutherford observes the captain buy a cargo of slaves and a huge,...
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Middle Passage is the story of Rutherford Calhoun’s life-changing journey aboard the slaver Republic in 1830. Like Charles Johnson’s earlier Oxherding Tale, this book is narrated by a young black man born into slavery but with a superior education, whose story is rooted in nineteenth century history but whose savvy, humorous voice bespeaks a twentieth century intellectual consciousness.
Rutherford’s adventures begin when he stows aboard a ship to escape a woman determined to bring him to the altar. The Republic, a slaver, ships out to Africa; there it picks up a special cargo—a hold full of men, women, and children of the mystical Allmuseri tribe. The Republic’s captain also secretly brings on board a crate containing the captured Allmuseri god.
Middle Passage blatantly evokes Moby Dick: Or, The Whale (1851), “Benito Cereno,” and Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e., English translation, 1616) among others. Johnson flaunts, mocks, and turns on end these similarities: His dwarfish Captain Falcon is a caricature of the crazed Ahab; the ringleaders of the revolting Allmuseri are Babo, Fernando, and Atufel; Isadora, Rutherford’s intended, knits by day and unravels her work by night to forestall marriage to her new suitor. The Republic’s voyage is a darkly comic version of the Pequod’s, but one highlighting...
(The entire section is 559 words.)